Fishing for exports? The world’s your lobster*

ImageForum_ArticleBuilding the SimVenture brand has involved little hitchhiking but much globe-trotting over the last 8 years. In this time exporting has become a key revenue stream. So what’s been learnt and how can you develop your own export expertise and thus build your business? Here are my top 10 tips…

1. Work with your national export agency

The UKTI provides an invaluable service that starts with the Passport to Export scheme. Over the last 7 years this agency has offered excellent & ongoing advice, information, training and leads abroad – virtually all for free. We have also benefited from several grants to support  trips overseas (up to 50% of costs) which has made it much easier to justify time and effort spent travelling. If you’re not based in the UK, find out which government department supports export and discover what help is available.

2. Pull is much easier than push

Not long after our website went live in 2006 we started to receive inquiries from around the world. People were downloading our software and requesting quotes months before a member of the team set foot on foreign soil. This ‘pull’ from abroad made it much easier to justify plans to export and the level of interest only increased when the first trip was made.

3. Book flights and accommodation direct

There are 2 key websites we use for booking hotels and flights. Not only do we get great rates but the direct booking systems provide a complete overview of the market as well as control over purchases. Skyscanner shows all flights and prices and you can take your pick in terms of airline and airport. Booking.com provides access to accommodation all over the world – all in a clear and easy to understand manner. Critically, if your plans change you have the option to cancel booked accommodation – at very late notice and at no charge.

4. Finding good agents and distributors is crucial

Whilst the ability to book hotels and flights direct is recommended, it’s almost essential that you work through local agents and distributors to build up leads and sales. Typically, these people work on commission and the better the % rate the more work you might expect from them. I could write a whole post about finding, working with and managing agents but my one piece of advice is to find people who are genuinely interested in your product and have the skills and background to work with customers in their respective territory. Those seeking a fast buck are almost always only with you for a short time.

5. Use time abroad wisely

Opportunities to market and sell abroad can be boundless. Working with UKTI you can find out about conferences and exhibitions for your market sector and these events may act as a trip hub with which to arrange other meetings. Having learnt from mistakes we only exhibit at events where a high proportion of visitors fit our customer profile. With regards to face-to-face meetings I aim to have at least 3 a day and these are all organised in advance by email. Use the advanced settings on LinkedIn to find people who you might want to meet. It is a very targeted, efficient and effective marketing channel.

6. Which airline?

If budgets are tight then use Skyscanner to find the cheapest available airline. But if you’re travelling long haul and like a bit of style then try an Airbus 380. Singapore Airlines (always recommended) and Emirates both have them in their fleet (online booking is straightforward) and the extra seat room, quietness and screen entertainment makes travel much easier. Business Class may be an indulgence but no one does it as well as Emirates. If you travel regularly with an airline then collect miles for free flights or upgrades later. Virgin Atlantic is one example of a company allowing you to accumulate miles through flying and with a credit card but read the terms and conditions carefully! Finally, I highly recommend Virgin Australia, Air Asia and Virgin America when flying within the respective countries. All easy to use, reliable and inexpensive if you book ahead.

7. Sound relationships take time

Trust is everything in business and it’s a rare thing to strike a deal at a first meeting. You have to put time and energy into relationships and this means return visits are almost essential. If agents and potential customers can see that you are committed to working together they will put more effort in too. Lead times for us are typically 12 months and more but once the process has started, all time and effort is a worthwhile investment.

8. Dealing with money

For me, a little currency and a healthy credit card go a long way when abroad especially if flights, hotels and airport taxis have been booked in advance. Buying currency at the Post Office rather than the airport gets you a better exchange rate but it will take longer to complete. We buy our currency at airports because time is often at a premium.

When it comes to billing clients abroad, all our invoices are in sterling. We also insist that bank charges must be met by the customer and thus add £12 to each bill. For international transactions to be completed, ensure your invoices include all the relevant information including: bank account details, Swift number, IBAN number and a BIC number.

9. Invaluable gadgets and accessories

Having a laptop and access to the internet is vital when travelling. When I book accommodation I always check to see that free wireless provision is available in the room. Likewise, power is essential and a multi-purpose plug like the ‘Swiss Gear‘ adaptor is an invaluable travelling companion. A bag padlock (for airline baggage) as well as lightweight quality headphones are always with me – the latter so I can escape the world especially in busy places (and don’t have to use crappy headsets supplied by airlines). Finally, take a bottle opener and a spare phone charger cable.

10. Prepare your paperwork

Prior to departure ensure you have relevant insurance, printed e-tickets for all pre-booked trains, flights and accommodation, a passport (not within 6 months of expiry) as well as necessary business visa documents to enter the countries you intend to visit. Most countries simply require you to fill out a visa card (free) on the flight but places like the US (see ESTA) and Australia require pre-registration and authorisation on-line. If you plan to travel on business to places such as India and Nigeria purchasing a visa can take a few months; so plan well ahead and consider using a professional and trustworthy agency to help with your application.

Key learning points: We live in a global market and opportunities to export abound. However, executing a successful export strategy takes time as well as money so plan ahead and consider all details. Business travel is a great way to see the world. 

 

*No oysters, lobsters or any other shellfish were harmed in the writing of this post. Article title inspired by the wonderful word-smith and long-time friend, Kay Wright. 

Defending the bad name of business

Mann böse mit VisitenkarteThis month I attended an entrepreneurship conference that attracted people from all sectors.

The organisers chose to kick things off with a ‘motivational speaker’ and the billing stated our man of purpose was a ‘leading entrepreneur and businessman’.

Now, in my experience these things can go one of two ways. I won’t mess you about. He had a shocker.

Born-again businessman

The excruciating pain of listening to arrogant and superficial babble from a self-proclaimed squillionaire (who’s risen from apparent destitution) is akin to your local dodgy take-away force-feeding you poodle.

Shelling the audience with multiple barrels of patronising and shallow b******t, we were told we too could reach Nirvana. However, getting ourselves anywhere close to his financial status required us to ‘dream’, ‘focus’, ‘work’ and ultimately ‘expect’. “I’m expecting him to finish” whispered my neighbour and friend Colin, who up to that point had sat in silence.

Colin’s mastery of the dry, pissed-off tone brilliantly illustrated the incongruous nature of the speaker’s tactless use of language and pitch. Lacing every sentence with ‘I’ and ‘Me’ he delivered his heavily masculine sermon with spellbinding omnipotence that must have left some thinking their time on earth had been little more than oxygen theft.

Our suffering lasted 15 minutes – or 900 seconds depending on one’s endurance strategy. As the presentation ended, Colin and I agreed we were highly motivated to get on with the rest of the event; which thankfully proved to be very worthwhile. So maybe there was method in the speaker’s madness.

The thorny issue of making money

But there is one point where I would side with Mr D. Motivation: business is first and foremost about making money. Whilst business owners possess many deeper reasons for running companies they also know that bringing in cold, hard cash has to be a priority – otherwise their business would cease trading. The survival instinct is extremely powerful.

But for some people the issue of making money in business is perceived as somehow grubby or dirty. We’ve all read about rich bankers, city ‘fat-cats’ and the like.

But to help demonstrate the point, my work with SimVenture means I’m continuously in touch with schools, colleges and universities and regularly present to and discuss a wide range of issues with lecturers, students and teachers.

And occasionally I will hear someone use the ‘business’ word and then immediately apologise for what they’ve just said – as if they’ve sworn. Such an ‘outburst’ may be followed up with the justification that some students or colleagues don’t like the notion of commercial business and/or the idea of profiting from others; this is then sometimes linked to a comment about the burgeoning popularity of social enterprises.

Let’s not apologise

Whilst the fine differences between a social enterprise and the ‘B’ word are for another blog post, I believe that given the opportunity we all have a responsibility to explain the absolute value and merit of seeking to make money through risk-taking and commercial trade. Surely we should never link the word ‘business’ with an ashamed and embarrassed apology?

I accept that some aspects of business are embarrassing. For example, pressure telephone selling, which does the name of business no favours at all is outrageous, but only a microscopic proportion of all firms are involved with this type of marketing. But having said that, how many educational courses help people to develop their sales skills?

By way of contrast, take a look at where you work. I’m grateful to Dell, Apple and o2 for making and providing brilliant IT equipment; the local builders and joiner that built my office; and to all the other commercial suppliers that provide a variety of goods at a competitive price and at a time that suits me. Without them I couldn’t do my job.

In all my experience of working in the private sector, I’ve learnt that most small businesses only ever have enough cash in the kitty to fund the next 1 to 3 months of existence. And as the last recession showed, many organisations are even more fragile. Such uncertainty highlights why ‘selling’ has to take a high priority and loss rather than profit is an easy position for any business to find itself in.

As traditional ‘career’ opportunities fragment and die, people entering the world of work need to be much better equipped to manage opportunity and uncertainty. Regardless of perspective or motivation, the benefits and truths of working in every sector should be shared and understood by all.

So we are right to celebrate business rather than apologise for it – although not in the mindless way of my squillionaire speaker. At the same time we need to recognise that sectors outside our own have different perspectives and motivations.

Key Learning Points: The public face of ‘business’ can sometimes give it a bad name; this is in part driven by the relentless pressure on commercial companies to make money to survive. It is easy to misunderstand this dynamic and thus misjudge ‘business’.

Flavour of the Umph!

UmphTrophyBeing 25 years’ self-employed I feel I’ve developed a ‘nose’ for judging whether a business or project might work.

The personal journey over the last quarter century has had its mix of success and failure; critical experience informing the senses as to whether something new can progress sufficiently so it bears fruit in the longer-term.

Sustainability is critical

For me, the issue of sustainability is a key ingredient. Moving from recession to real economic recovery is going to take time and short-term thinking doesn’t really help.

People and organisations that over-spice their work with ill-thought through ideas and quick gains play a dangerous game; just look at banks and the bad taste they’ve left.

That said, enterprising people who create new projects or businesses must draw on huge levels of energy and resilience from the outset. They must also possess the ability to adapt quickly because economic uncertainty mixed with market fragility/volatility means even the best made plans and forecasts quickly become round-file fodder.

So turning the ‘new’ into something ‘sustainable’ is a fine balancing act fraught with challenge and risk.

Now, this is the juncture where I typically tender a hitchhiking analogy; but my mind’s blank. But what springs to mind is a rocket using vast fuel reserves to counter earth’s gravitational pull, and then accessing a separate energy source and sophisticated engineering to fulfil its space journey. A galaxy hitchhiking guide. Now that’s a thought…

Umph! leading by example

One new and innovative project that made it ‘off the ground’ in 2010 (and is now attracting increasing amounts of regional and national attention) is Umph!; an innovative event held annually at Huddersfield Town Football Club.

Brainchild of Grant Thornton’s ‘Educate to Innovate‘ programme, Umph! gives students aged 16-19 an opportunity to develop enterprise, employability and entrepreneurial skills as well as participate in a SimVenture business simulation competition.

Umph! organisers meet polar explorer Mark Wood

Umph! organisers meet polar explorer Mark Wood

And this month a record number of schools & colleges from throughout Yorkshire gathered again to participate in the third event of its kind. In addition, 10 speakers including renowned polar explorer, Mark Wood, X Factor’s Executive Producer Siobhan Greene and football club Chairman and entrepreneur Dean Hoyle each gave of their time to share their wisdom and experience with participants.

But how and why has Umph! become such a success and what can be learnt from the process?

Secrets of success

From the very outset the organising team focused tightly on providing for schools, colleges and their students. Everyone involved gave of their time and/or resources which meant many traditional event costs were waived. The collective unselfish attitude and reduced financial risk created a powerful trust-based partnership which lasts to this day.

One of the biggest early hurdles was securing participant interest in the first Umph! event. Academic institutions receive numerous off-site invitations, so competition for time was always going to be tough. And in 2010/11 cuts to education budgets were widespread and increased government legislation made it more difficult for students to travel off-site.

The 16 month lead-in time for the first event in 2011 proved crucial and ultimately attracted 14 schools and colleges (in 2013, 29+ signed up). Even though event entry was free and each of the 4 members within the winning team were promised the latest iPad (thank you sponsors), huge effort was needed to attract the early ‘pioneers’.

Common purpose unites

Participants take on the SimVenture challenge

Participants take on the SimVenture challenge

Two years on and everyone who attends Umph! talks about how much they have enjoyed and benefited from the event. Lead teachers are keen to sign up immediately for the following year and organisers, speakers and sponsors are visibly moved by the impact the day has had on 100+ young people.

Umph! is sustainable because the organisers never sought short-term rewards and prioritised giving over what could be gained. This philosophy united stakeholders who have then collectively offered time, energy and absolute commitment to a clear and common purpose.

The richness and diversity of all the people involved with Umph! means every participant that takes part benefits in their own unique way. Creating such a dynamic is crucial because the individual as well as collective sense of involvement, achievement and success generates the necessary momentum for future years.

And since people want to be involved again, positive word of mouth promotion spreads quickly; meaning far less energy is required to persuade others to participate.

Grant Thornton deserve huge praise for making Umph! a reality. Sandra O’Neill and her highly professional team based in Leeds are already looking to organise an even bigger and better day in Huddersfield in 2014.

And such is the flavour of Umph! there is now a hunger for the event to be replicated in other parts of the country. If it whets your appetite, get in touch with Sandra.

Key Learning Points: Developing the momentum to make a new project or business work over the long-term needs to involve people who buy into a common purpose. Hard work, patience, giving first and ongoing collaboration are other key ingredients. 

 

 

Show off when the show’s on

Attention Bullhorn Megaphone Sends Warning MessageExhibiting at events and shows can be a highly effective way for small businesses to promote their products and services.

Just like the hitchhiker, you put yourself right in front of passing potential customers, waiting for someone to take interest and stop by.

Attending exhibitions is fun – and if you get it all right, it can also be highly profitable; over the past 25 years I’ve spent thousands of hours on stands around the world. But it’s not always a bag of laughs and just like all other promotional activities you have to accept you may not recoup your costs.

So if you want to exhibit what should you do to maximise the marketing opportunity, make best use of time and minimise the financial risk? Here are my top ten tips:

Top 10 Tips for exhibiting

1. Profile attendees

Before making the decision to exhibit anywhere find out about the audience being promised by the organiser. Ideally you need to know both the profile and volume of attendees, so request details. Then ask yourself what proportion of the delegates fit your target customer profile? In my experience, I’ve found small events (100 – 250 delegates) offering a high proportion of people who fit my market to be more effective than large events that offer a small proportion of the people I am targeting.

2. Cost the risk

As part of your preparation, work out the full event cost (include promotional materials, travel, accommodation, equipment hire and all stand costs). To calculate the ‘risk’, consider how many sales (at an average sales value) you need to make in order to breakeven. However, also bear in mind that there is typically a lead time for sales to be concluded so don’t plan for people to necessarily order at your stand. If your gut tells you the costs outweigh the benefits be cautious about committing.

3. One simple message works best

When creating stand promotional material, keep everything simple and easy for people passing the stand to understand. Whilst you should make your stand attractive, it’s a common mistake for exhibitors to overdress their space and fill every inch with information that conveys different messages. If people passing your stand are confused by what you offer, they will continue walking and no inquiries or sales will result.

4. Provide incentives for stand visitors

Give people an incentive to visit your stand. You can either provide an inexpensive ‘giveaway’ such as pens/sweets, a product trial or a free entry raffle draw and/or offer discount for orders placed during the show. By rewarding visitors with a special offer (exclusive to the event) you increase the goodwill between you and the customer and improve the chances of an order being placed there and then.

For reference, in my experience, the average order time can be several months after a show taking place yet all the costs have to be met in advance. Offers that lead to quick sales are great for cashflow.

5. Create movement and interaction

Stands that look dull and boring don’t attract visitors. But if you can create movement or include an activity that creates curiosity and interest, people are far more likely to stop by. And nothing pulls in people like a crowd. By way of example, the SimVenture team has exhibited at the annual IEEC event for a number of years and in 2012 the team felt an interactive element was needed to maintain interest levels.

Cards used for 'SimVenture Play your Cards Right'

Cards used for ‘SimVenture Play your Cards Right’

A game based on the theme of ‘Play Your Cards Right’ was created and throughout the event’s 3 days we were inundated with requests to participate. The show was a great success on all levels.

6. Build rapport with people

Treat people who pass or visit your stand as you would like to be treated. A common mistake (and a pet hate) is the exhibitor who asks one question of the innocent passer-by to get their attention and then spends the next 10 minutes telling them all about their wonderful gizmo. Give the poor souls who take interest in you a chance to talk about themselves by asking questions and listening to the answers. Building rapport with people through questioning and listening creates confidence and helps you understand how your product/service fits with the customer’s needs.

7. Gather contact information

Ensure you collect the contact details of everyone who takes an interest in your products and services at an event. Without the data you can’t follow the inquiry up at a later date or inform people of future offers. Record the information electronically or use a pad and pen – if you know your stand is going to be particularly busy create a simple system so stand visitors can record their contact details for you!

8. Wifi

Since event attendance means you are out of the office it’s almost inevitable that you will need to access your website or email whilst away. If you rely on email or website access then check with the event organisers that they offer free Wifi as part of the package. If the organisers want to charge an exorbitant fee (and some do) consider investing in a mobile phone with Personal Hotspot access.

9. Follow-up

When the event finishes and everyone goes home, it’s time for you to go to work and follow-up all inquiries. It’s important not to be too pushy and certainly don’t pressure people into anything; but a short personal email to thank people for their interest is a good place to start.

10. Evaluate

Finally, wait two or three months to fully evaluate the success of any event. Whatever you do, don’t sign up to exhibit again until you have completed the review. Waiting a couple of months allows you to be completely objective and means you can properly assess the overall financial position of the show. It’s quite possible that your costs outweigh sales at first-time events so be careful not to judge matters purely on financial performance.

Key Learning Points Use exhibitions to promote your business and reach new customers. Plan and prepare carefully and think through the whole experience from the customer’s viewpoint in order to maximise your chances of event success.

Digging for fire will spark your thinking

Fire_TreasureLast month’s blog post entitled ‘Top 10 websites for entrepreneurs’ highlighted the most popular sites being recommended to people starting in business.

But when looking more deeply at the sites and social media sources that didn’t make top ten status, it became clear that something that lacks popularity may still have game-changing value. Much like the globally renowned Edinburgh Festival, you must visit its ‘Fringe event’ if you want to unmask the future diamonds of entertainment.

So intrigued was I by the ‘entrepreneurial fringe data’ (supplied to me by research respondents), that I found myself losing hours reviewing recommended social media sites, blogs, YouTube videos, books as well as web applications and tools. The content is spectacular. But the really interesting discovery is the thinking patterns and connections which reveal where the future of entrepreneurial learning and application is headed.

Top 10 fringe websites 

So what are the wonderful other websites (‘WoWs’) deserving of your attention?

A popular choice centred around the research completed by Sara Sarasvathy. Her robust studies identified (and subsequently modelled) how entrepreneurial minds think and how and where fundamental differences exist compared to the mind of the corporate employee. Her research has serious implications for teachers and trainers.

Wow1: Read more about Sara’s work and watch her explain her theories too.

——————————————————————————————-

Linked to, but independent of Sara’s research, is compelling work completed by key people including Alex Osterwalder, Eric Ries and Steve Blank. The traditional business plan may still have a place in teaching as well as supporting people into start-up but the thinking expressed by these experts exposes the flaws of how plans are developed and then used.

“A start-up is a temporary organisation designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model” explains Steve Blank who is both a serial entrepreneur and academic. Several websites were recommended where Steve Blank shares his thinking and highlights fundamental implications for teachers, trainers and of course entrepreneurs themselves.

Wow2. Watch Steve Blank explain his groundbreaking theories at IEEC 2012.

——————————————————————————————-

In his book ‘The Lean Startup’, Eric Ries emphasises the need for people to be able to build, share and test new ideas quickly and efficiently, rather than working slowly on concepts, plans and policies that date faster than the ink dries.

An excellent and practical web application that makes real sense of the Business Canvas and Eric Ries’ thinking is the ‘Lean Launch Lab’. For me, this site conveys a complex issue in a pragmatic manner. The visual nature of the Lean Launch Lab makes it a powerful resource to use.

Wow3. See the Lean Launch Lab in action

——————————————————————————————-

Steve Johnson is an author and speaker I’ve referred to in previous blog posts on this site. His book ‘Where good ideas come from’ is a highly recommended read for any entrepreneur seeking to make sense of their own innovative thoughts and direction. His 4 minute stop-animation film summarises some of his great thinking and backs up Sara Sarasvathy’s, Steve Blank’s and Alex Osterwalder’s research.

Wow4. Be reassured and inspired by Steve Johnson

——————————————————————————————-

Numerous web tools were also recommended within the research. Two that really stood out for me included ‘Quora’ and ‘Popcorn’. Quora is a database connecting tens of thousands of people who are seeking advice and supplying answers on a range of topics including business and entrepreneurship. Popcorn on the other hand is an on-line resource that makes it easy to enhance, remix and share web video. So if like the SimVenture Team you want to use eye-catching film to help promote your work, visit their site.

Wow5. Make worldwide connections with Quora and stand out with Popcorn.

——————————————————————————————-

So many respondents fed back great YouTube sites that support entrepreneurial learning and teaching. YouTube has an unlimited supply of relevant and insightful films and you only have to type in the names of people mentioned in this post to start discovering treasures that will both accelerate and focus your own thinking.

Wow6. YouTube has it all and below are four of my favourites:

What it takes to be a successful entrepreneur

Inspiring the entrepreneur inside you to act & change the world

Not in the research but a personal favourite that fires my mind

How one idea sparks further thinking (you may wet yourself laughing too)

—————————————————————————————–

Another feature of the research was the list of people cited as highly inspirational and entrepreneurial. Neither Richard Branson nor Alan Sugar made the shortlist but one person who received multiple votes was Paul Graham. Programmer, writer, serial entrepreneur and investor, Paul’s published articles received 17 million views in 2011. His startup incubator has also funded over 450 startups, including Dropbox, Stripe & Reddit.

Wow7. Does Paul Graham run the best Startup Programme in the World?

——————————————————————————————-

If you’ve visited Paul Graham’s site you’ll have noticed his platform is based around a simple blog site. Blogs are so easy to create and as long as you have something valuable to say, people will visit and then help promote your work. A key blog site that was recommended to me several times concerns the work of best-selling author Seth Godin who is encouraging us all to make something happen with our lives.

Wow8. Seth Godin inspires the creative entrepreneur in all of us

——————————————————————————————-

Smack in the middle of this research project, I received an email from those clever people at the ‘big river’. Their subject headline: ‘View the top ten books about entrepreneurship’. How could I not pass on this simple and obvious website recommendation to you?

Wow9. Amazon does Entrepreneurship in books and Kindle

——————————————————————————————-

And finally, if you’re not already involved, join the on-line parties at LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. For me, the available information through these social media sites is invaluable and the work and referrals I’ve received through these sources continues unabated. Other people said exactly the same.

Wow10. LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

——————————————————————————————-

Well, that’s about it on the subject of researching & reviewing websites and social media for now. As ever, please feedback thoughts or leave a post below. A tonne of other ideas waiting to be transformed into the written word await me and I look forward to getting back into the creative hitchhiking groove very soon.

Special thanks…

Before closing, I must thank again everyone who contributed to the research, and especially Matthew Draycott, Simon Brown and Nigel Adams who shared so much recommended material for this post. Cheers chaps.

Mind-blowing passion in the back bedroom

Reading anything by Bill Bryson makes me smile and laugh out loud.

As a young man, Mr Bryson discovered the joys of hitchhiking. Driven by a thirst for adventure he spent two summers travelling around Europe with the aid of his thumb. He didn’t know it at the time, but the accumulated experience when combined with his journalistic skills (acquired later) would make him a best-selling author (and a mint).

Whilst Bill Bryson has made a real success of his working life, he probably doesn’t see himself as an ‘entrepreneur’. Yet, his desire to explore and discover, his preparedness to learn and ultimately his ability to apply his talents, are the exact qualities needed to succeed in your own business. So what stops us matching Mr Bryson’s achievements?

Poor use of talents

Sir Ken Robinson who I referenced in ‘Present Yourself: Principles and Pitfalls‘ talks eloquently and brilliantly on the TED website about the world facing a crisis of human resources because we ‘make poor use of our natural talents’. What he means is that as human beings we are all gifted but many of us fail to make use of what we have.

Sir Ken adds that he meets all kinds of people who don’t think they are any good at anything and ‘endure their lives’ and ‘wait for the weekend’. In contrast he also meets people who ‘love what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else’.

The latter group he contends includes people who have worked hard to discover their talents and have then been able to put them to good use. Robinson says that just like natural resources (gas, oil etc.) talents are not not just lying around; as individuals we have to ‘create the circumstances where they show themselves’.

Bill Bryson loves what he does and began creating the circumstances for himself by hitchhiking through Europe and seeing things from a new angle. I doubt he had any kind of long-term plan back then but by doing something different he created a reservoir of insightful knowledge that when mixed with an ability and desire to write, provided a literary edge. And he’s managed to fully exploit his talents and in doing so has had a ball.

Emotional discoveries create desire for change

It took several years of setting up and running businesses for my collective business and personal experience to lead me to discover my real passion in life. At 34 I had been running companies for 11 years but in doing so had discovered something about myself that was nothing to do with the focus of the work with which I was involved on a daily basis.

Being self-employed and in constant contact with like-minded people, I was seeing increasing amounts of evidence that traditional approaches to teaching and training budding entrepreneurs were not working; yet no one with the power to create change was doing anything about it. Even though many people were failing within the first 12 months of running a business (or making the same mistakes as all that had gone before) education and enterprise training courses were not learning from those failures and/or adapting their pedagogy. Delivery methods centred largely on one person telling many what he/she believed they needed to know; and often I found people were being taught untruths because the teacher/trainer didn’t have the appropriate experience.

Despite suggestions, proposals and pleas for change, no one in local, regional (remember the RDAs?) or central government wanted to support what I saw. Looking back, I think the moment I finally decided to have the courage of my own conviction (or put up with the status quo) was the day I was asked to be a judge at a business planning competition at a local university. Listening to uninspired student groups (with a keen eye on the cash prizes) talk unconvincingly about their idea for a business (and how successful it would be) made me realise I was becoming part of the status quo. This was perhaps the first-time I realised how the entrepreneurship education industry can be clothed like an Emperor.

Creating a business simulation

In my view resources were needed that allowed people to practice creating and running a small business in an authentic way. It was critical to provide people with the opportunity to make decisions, deal with consequences and then be able to talk about them and reflect with skilled people and others who could question and offer sound advice. An authentic business simulation seemed like an obvious answer.

Since I didn’t possess the skills I persuaded my brother Paul (software designer), to work with me. To cut a long story short we spent 4 years (2002 – 2006) building ‘SimVenture’. He was based in Guildford and I was near York and in that time thousands of hours and thousands of pounds were spent. Ultimately we would create a resource allowing budding entrepreneurs to practice creating and growing a virtual business, and thus be able to learn in a highly personal, authentic and hands-on way.

Fuelled by a common desire to challenge the norm as well as a burning passion to make a real difference, we worked tirelessly in two back bedrooms. The stakes were high but we always believed in ourselves and through those 4 years we learnt so much. On more than one occasion we nearly gave up.

But SimVenture launched in October 2006, went onto win several awards and has been a joy to work with ever since. The team is a bit larger now but we all love what we do, learn new stuff everyday and are making the best use of our talents.

Key Learning Points: Look around, look to yourself and dig to discover your talents. When you combine skills with a real passion to do something, you are much better placed to make a difference and have fun with all aspects of your life.